Dharma Gleanings


cynthia rich

July 31, 2012—August 23, 2012

July 31, 2012
Travel, like the arts, makes the mind more spacious, takes us very readily into states of mindfulness. I am reminded of one of the nuns or monks, who said, “The mind has an innate capacity to shrink,” and some of our happiness in travel comes from feeling ourselves expand beyond the limits we customarily impose on our daily lives to make ourselves feel safer. When we are freed from responsibilities and other distractions, travel invites us by its changing scene to look at life more freshly, it insists we live in the present.

From a dharma perspective, travel, like the arts, should not be an end in itself—it can serve instead as a beautiful reminder of what it means to be fully alive. We should let it show us what our minds could be doing all the time. While we travel, we can ask ourselves: How can I create enough space, freedom from distraction, encouragement to absorb and wonder, so that I can experience my daily life as the miracle it is?

August 5, 2012
Yesterday I watched Beasts of the Southern Wild, weeping to watch how it takes in the entire human condition, shows us suffering and joy as inextricably woven together. These days, even without Beasts, I see much more clearly what Thich Nhat Hanh and other teachers profess—and which originally felt to me more like a rationalization for life’s suffering than an insight into reality—that there is really no way that joy or suffering can exist without the other. One instance that is clear to me: our personal suffering creates a terrible wall separating ourselves from others, and yet it is also our personal knowledge of suffering that creates the most profound connections between us. Even when we share someone’s good fortune, our sympathetic joy is suffused by our knowledge that it has been, or could have been otherwise. It seems so clear, now that I see it, and seemed rather hokey before.

More about Beasts: For several years I’ve tried to eliminate “but” from my vocabulary, that invitation to duality, setting up two armies that have nothing in common. Beasts, I see now, is about eliminating the “buts.” We aren’t meant to feel: Wink loves his daughter but he treats her harshly, Hushpuppy loves all living creatures, listens for their heartbeats but she sticks a bird in the mud and delights at ripping open crabs. It is all interwoven in the web of life. That doesn’t mean we don’t try to lessen pain and eliminate suffering. It means that we don’t feel there is something wrong when we can’t. It means not resisting suchness.

The other day I came suddenly into a delicious consciousness after drowsing during a massage. I hadn’t been thinking about Beasts—I hadn’t been thinking at all—and suddenly I saw the meaning of the first image of the film. Hushpuppy is running down a road with her arms spread-eagled and glorious fireworks spreading light around her. In the film she is filled with exalted joy watching a fireworks display. I didn’t think about it afterwards until I came to consciousness as my massage was ending—the image of Hushpuppy on the road is meant to evoke both the joy of the fireworks and the unforgettable image of the little Vietnamese girl during the war, running down the road with her arms spread eagled and the flames of napalm leaping from those arms. Life, the film says, are both those images, and however much we may wish to put one in a box under the bed, the two images are one.

August 6, 2012
The more we peel away the stuff of suffering—the childhood distortions, the drama, the aversions and graspings, including the grasping for a private identity—the more inseparable we feel from the universe. Because, of course, when we eliminate the unreal, what remains is the real.

August 9, 2012
At the hospital I often see how belief in God or Jesus can be immensely helpful to people as they deal with pain, loss, uncertainty, death. Not as a false crutch, a kindly illusion that hides a harsh reality, as I used to believe. Now I understand that it takes them to the place of values and insights identical to mine. It can help them with letting go, allows them to find a sometimes unshakeable peace within themselves, an understanding of impermanence and of the primacy of spirit rather than identity. Sometimes when I meet patients who have absolutely no spiritual practice and are in desperate circumstances, I find myself wishing mightily that they had developed a belief in God. At those times I think of the belief in God or Jesus as a shortcut to Buddhism.

All I can offer them then is to help them find some reliable place of peace or centering within themselves, some place that they may have visited without identifying it as a healing source, some awareness of a spirit that is separate from the fear, anger, helplessness: some glimpse of their own buddha nature that might ease their suffering and connect them to the larger universe.

August 10, 2012
I’ve thought many times about the different kinds of grief—all grieving is decidedly not the same. There is what I think of as true grief—a grief that is necessary, valuable and, if you like, pure. That grief is a kissing cousin of gratitude, and over time it morphs into a gratitude that carries with it no pain. In its first flush, it means we are taking the measure of the precious human being (animal, perhaps, maybe home or object) we have lost. Because it is difficult to take in a whole person while she is alive, this fresh grief can feel almost like a shock—not even the shock of loss, so much, as the shock of recognition. She was all that! Being so close to gratitude, this grief can contain seeds of joy. It comes from our buddha nature.

The other forms that what we name as grief can take are not so much motivated by pure love and appreciation. There is the grief of grasping—I want her back!—which, not surprisingly, can manifest as the well-known experience of the bereaved feeling anger at the person who has departed. The person we are “grieving” is no longer serving our needs and desires. Our “grief” is more about ourselves, less about the one who has left.

The leaving can, of course, trigger childhood abandonment. What will become of me? I’m all alone. The world feels empty. I’m afraid.

Or it can trigger childhood guilt and shame. I didn’t tell her I loved her enough. I wasn’t there when she died. I didn’t spend enough time in the hospital. I shouldn’t have snapped at her last month.

The more we can identify the different forms of grieving, as we move through them, closely investigating the ones that come from childhood suffering, since they may be our opportunity to free ourselves from earlier pain, the sooner we can rest in the purer form that melts into gratitude.

August 13, 2012
By the time we leave our childhood home, we’ve developed enough grasping and aversion to keep our practice busy for a lifetime. Then we enter into a larger capitalist society that depends for its continuation on multiplying astronomically our desires and aversions. So we learn to hate last year’s clothes or the first line in our face at thirty, we learn “the news” by absorbing hate-filled rhetoric, while we are teased with every possible cereal box, microbeer, technological gadget. In the last fifty years I’ve watched these pressures intensify year by year exponentially.

Not just beer, of course. Sexuality is for sale everywhere. You would think, just by living in our human bodies, we would all have enough sexual desires to keep us busy working to bring those powerful forces into line with the way we want to live our lives. And yet—as though we were all stone cold from the neck down and need instant rescuing from this frigid state—we are confronted every hour of the day and night with images and voices to stimulate and intensify our desires constantly, relentlessly. Apart from official pornography, the manufacture of sexual arousal is sold everywhere like the thousand brands of wines, and it is a commodity that is rapidly globalizing. Testosterone, which our world needs a bit less of, is being pushed like candy to men in their eighties, while the children in Bettina’s classrooms are sexualized by seven or eight.

Appetite for food is another natural desire which we scarcely need to be cajoled to wish to satisfy. As with our sexual hungers, we are unceasingly bombarded with tempting visions that create and feed our painful emotions. Almost every magazine cover that does not show a teasing picture of a barely dressed woman offers up a teasing picture of mouthwatering food. The dozens of cooking shows on TV, the glossy cookbooks, every conceivable variety of food calling out to us in our stores and restaurants, are at work to seduce us (Almost as mercilessly the corporations push us to loathe our widening bodies so that we will consume a lifetime of diet products and weightloss programs).

Not surprising that our sexual lives and our stomachs are in a crisis of craving and excess.

It takes far more wisdom than in the Buddha’s day for us to embrace the value of non-grasping.

August 23, 2012
It saddens me that dharma teachers have such resistance to acknowledging the role that childhood conditioning plays in keeping us from the present moment, holding us in our suffering.

Buddhism shows us the need to deconstruct our identities (Who am I? Am I the same person I was when I was six months old? and so on), and in so many ways our identities are our childhood conditioning and our resistance to that conditioning:

conditioning = childhood suffering and its defenses =
personality = identity = me = present suffering

In other words, it’s not only that belief in our Identity leads to suffering. We need to see that everything I hold onto as my individual identity comes out of childhood suffering and my ways of defending and protecting myself against it. My Identity has been and continues to be shaped by my conditioning and my response to my conditioning.

Buddhism encourages us not to dwell in the past. As long as we are suffering, childhood is not in the past. To the extent that we have not awakened, it is very much in the present. Our childhood shaped our “personality”/identity/Self then, and it shapes it now. We act out of those earliest beliefs/reactions/feelings/thoughts now, in the moment. To recognize this is so helpful in deconstructing our suffering. It frees us to realize, “Oh! I’m only believing/feeling/thinking my suffering thoughts and feelings because of my childhood.” Once we’ve made this separation, we can then act with a new clarity and discernment.

This feels like an important piece of dharma for people in the middle of the first turning of the wheel. My sense is that it would help enormously in clearing out what comes up and preparing them for the next turning.